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The Forecast Calls for Pain…

One of the HR people at my old shop used to tell me she thought a dark cloud just followed me around every day – like a depressed version of “Pig Pen” in the Peanuts strips.

This week was when the cloud caught up.

Once it does, it takes twice as long to get ahead of it again.  When Noah hurt a little kid in the EDP room this week, in fact, it didn’t just drop a cold mist on my head, I could see the lightning and hear the thunder.

The Forecast Calls for Pain, as the great Robert Cray says.

To begin with, the first indications that there was anything wrong came from Noah’s big sister, Abbi, not the teachers.  Understand, now, that I don’t dispute that Noah was wrong, nor do I think any kid deserves to have somebody bigger than them push or hurt them.  That’s just not right and I won’t put up with it.

What makes me angry, though, is that the first I’d heard of this was when it was already too late.  Noah is like a pressure cooker set too high.  It doesn’t take much more pressure to make it go off, so if he’s bothered, even if it’s not meant to be bothersome (in this case, he was dead wrong, Noah should have just held his temper) he reacts.  He’d been reacting this way for nearly a week, I think.

I heard about it Tuesday.

Worse yet, I talked with him, and he then goes to school with the promise of behaving.  He didn’t.  In fact, he moved directly from yelling to hitting, pushing the kid over and pinning him to the ground.

I could see the lightning flashes.

We went through the apology letters and the letter to his Mom, and then one of the teachers, a person I trust and admire had a talk with Noah about his behavior and told him how he needed to find other ways to work out this aggression.  She gave him a journal to write in, helped him find ways to work out the anger, everything he needed.

Then the school called because the principal had a talk with him as well.  Parents had complained.  He was getting a disciplinary form, nothing for his permanent record, in the backpack.  Was he getting counselling?

And there was the thunder.

He is a loving, wonderful, funny little boy and smart as a whip.  But he likes being the center of attention – not as the class clown but just as a matter of fact.  But he has been through this once before.  He just needs to be able to control his actions better, which I know is reaaallllly hard at the age of 8.  It’s hard at 38.  (No, that’s not my age, don’t send me messages, please, I know how old I am, it matched the point I was trying to make.)  I know it was wrong, I feel awful that others are having to deal with this too, but he’s also not a kid that can be so much more than the reputation he’ll get.

Now, of course, he can’t even be near trouble when it happens.  It’s like the corollary to the “Boy who Cried Wolf!”  Someone gets in a fight, Noah’s nearby, he’s part of it.  Kid yells at him on the playground, he’s going to be questioned what did he do to start the shouting?  Now, as a result of his lack of control he’s going to have to be TWICE as good to avoid getting in trouble – when it’s deserved and when it’s not.

I’m not going for dramatics here, Noah’s not getting suspended, he’s not going to be on anti-psychotics or anything, the principal’s being very nice about it and seems thankful I’ve responded quickly.

But I have to ask this: why is everything about their mother?  Here’s the thing nobody took into account: Noah had this problem well before he lost his Mom.  We had issues in Kindergarten, even had problems last year.  I know that it’s a contributing factor, it’s the 800 pound gorilla standing on top the white elephant in the room every minute of every day in our house.  I have no doubt that it helped spark this latest storm front, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not the biggest factor in it all.

I honestly believe that it’s not just my son who used his mother’s death to try and get out of trouble that first day.  I think it’s an easy answer to the problem for everyone.  If the kid is misbehaving, it’s an easy thing to say it’s because he’s upset about his Mom.

Of course he’s upset, wouldn’t you be?  But is it the chief cause, the main determining factor?  Are you kidding me?

Believe me, I wish it was that.  I wish it was the fact that his Mom passed and that he missed her and had closed down without talking about her, it would be SO much easier.  It’s just not right.

Guess what, everybody, he DOES talk about it.  He misses his Mom SO very much.  My worst example:  We were on our way home from Nebraska, just a couple months after Andrea had died.  We needed something to eat and in the Denver airport your choices are ice cream or the freaking Clown house.  So it was a happy meal.  When he read on a McDonald’s Happy Meal box that “Little Ryan (name changed to protect the innocent and because I can’t really remember his name anyway) was gravely ill.  Thanks to the Ronald McDonald house, Ryan had his friends and family near him and he was able to get better!”

I watched his face blanch, I really did.  His eyes got glassy and watery, his gears were turning – I could see it.  He could easily have just sat there, holding it in, but I have told ALL of the kids that we’re in this together.  If they need ANYthing at ANY time, call, email, text, or just come up and talk to me.  I’ll make the time.  If I need to stay home, work be damned, that’s what they mean to me.

He looked up at me and I knew something was wrong.  He simply asked “is that why Mommy died, Dad?”

“Is what why, kiddo?”

“The box here – it says that because his family was there with him he lived.”  His voice grew a little more frantic . . . his thoughts were getting erratic.  He started to stumble to put his thoughts together.  “I wasn’t there with Mommy, and that’s why she died.  If I had been there, would Mommy still be alive?!”  (It’s here that I have to tell you how much I sincerely hate McDonald’s – worse than I ever did before.  Not the food, which is horrible for you; not the atmosphere, which is chaotic; it’s that they would write this kind of thing on a Happy Meal box like it’s the ONLY thing that helped a cancer-ridden kid survive.  Not the doctors, medication or the little boy’s flat out tenacity and strength. )

Yet Noah talked with me and asked me about it.  You may see this as unreasonable or silly, but in the 8-year-old mind of a little boy who saw his Mom on a Tuesday morning and the next time he saw her, she was closed in a casket – that’s not silly.  It’s scary.  Horrifying.

I told him that it wasn’t his fault, it could never . . . ever . . . be his fault.  I looked at Sam and he did what he always does, closed down, his eyes now glassy, too.  “Sometimes bad things happen,” I told them.  “They aren’t nice, they don’t make sense, and it’s really, really unfair!  But I never want you to believe that this was EVER your fault.  Mommy got sick, it’s that simple, and no amount of company would have helped that get better.  She tried so hard to stop it but her body just couldn’t fight any more.”

I told him that his Mommy would never have left us if she thought we couldn’t do this on our own, something I truly do believe.  That, and she wasn’t alone.  I was there – the day she went in, the moment she left.  She was NEVER alone, and she would never have thought it was his fault.

As much as she wasn’t alone, neither is he.  I don’t work for 90 hours a week and I don’t get home insanely late.  I don’t come home, expect my daughter to cook or do laundry.  I don’t plop on the couch and stare at the TV.

From the moment I got home from the hospital, I had to buckle down and show these kids that they were going to be cared for.  I don’t break down in front of them.  I keep the routine, I try to get them to activities we wouldn’t have done before, and I make sure that they know they’re not alone and they are supported by me.  Sure, the horrible quiet of the evening makes me think about these things, but I’ll be damned if THEY have to face it alone.

I don’t write this in an effort to say I won’t take Noah to counselling nor do I think it’s a bad thing.  I’m just saying – to paint this little man, hell all 4 kids, in a corner and say their behavior, let alone their lives are defined by the fact that they lost their mother is so painfully wrong.  They’re defined by us both – hopefully getting the best parts of Andrea and me, the pieces of their lives put together by the influence, affection, activity AND events in their lives.  It’s that box everyone talks about.  The problem is, we don’t fit in it.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I can see the cloud following us around – the Forecast Calls for Pain . . . but if I can hear the thunder and see the lightning, maybe we can handle the storm.

Every Picture Tells a Story . . .

One of the few smiling images of mine

I’ve seen a number of descriptions of my writings here but none touches me as much as the thought from a number of people that his is as much a love story as it is a story of grief, loss or flat out manic depressive family panic.

I truly hope people see that is the fact, I did love Andrea, more than anyone. But I do have to admit something, whether it’s right or not; whether you believe it or not.

I got far more out of this relationship than Andrea did.

I’ve given glimpses of myself, expressed how awkward I was, how much of a geek I was . . . none of that gives a true picture.

If you’ll forgive the photographic theft, I’ve attached a few pictures above and below. I think you should all see the transition and hopefully you’ll see my point. I wasn’t just skinny, I was gangly. I can use the excuse that I had moderate asthma, took medication that sped up my metabolism to the point that I couldn’t sit still for more than 2 minutes at a time and burned an unhealthy amount of weight, but that isn’t all of it. Not by a long shot. A friend described me recently, and I’m paraphrasing, as very talented but also quiet . . .extremely quiet. I don’t dispute that it’s true, but that statement could also be read as shy.  Paralyzingly shy.

I also was filled with anxiety and fear, brought on by a tremendous lack of self-confidence. If you look at pictures of me, you see me through the years. As a kid, with a Bieber “do” far before Bieber was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Maybe before his father even hit puberty. I had a massive obsession with Eric Clapton and Fender Stratocasters. I own a Dr. Who Neckerchief/Scarf from the Tom Baker era. I was introverted to the point that after the unfathomable reality that I’d actually asked a girl to the Junior prom it didn’t mean that I was an enjoyable date. I shudder to think how awful those early, awkward evenings – evenings I had such romantic and amazing plans for – turned out to really be.  And sure, they were bad memories for me, they must just be unforgivable for some of those unfortunate enough to have gone out with me, let alone just hang out with me.  There are days I cannot believe I actually survived those years with any friends still willing to talk to me.

Before I met Andrea, the only time I was able to actually be myself was on stage, in front of a microphone with a guitar slung over my shoulder. There, I was myself, even freaking out some of the people who knew me before this, showing a side of myself they never knew existed, maybe never got a glimpse of.

A rare likable photo of me . . . at Septemberfest

Yet I’ve heard from friends that never knew me in those years who say they cannot picture that version of me. (No, I won’t go on some “look at me” rant here, I don’t have that kind of ego)  Colleagues who say they can’t even imagine the person I’m describing.

The answer to the dichotomy is pretty simple – it’s the other picture(s) . . . the ones that have the amazing blonde in them.

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This was at the station where we met. Just a quick flash of me.
A look at the changes...in me, not the beautiful woman on my arm

I know I play up her looks, and sure that’s the first thing is the physical attraction, but she gave me so much more. I wouldn’t say I changed, because I think the fundamental person that I am was always there. But Andrea found that fundamental person. It wasn’t a few weeks and I changed from the kid with the Beatles-haircut-on-sterioids look to the guy standing next to her in Geoffrey Bean shirts and short hair. There was something fundamentally profound for a guy like me to not only go out with Andrea, but to know that when you walked into a room, the room changed. All because of her. If you’re standing with someone amazing, smart and beautiful, it’s funny how your own barriers start to fall down. But it’s more than that. Whenever I’d get quiet, she’d nudge me . . . “you OK? You’re awfully quiet.” If I got down on myself, she’d tell me I was wrong. If I just had a rotten, God-awful day, she’d just smile at me. Any coldness left inside of me just melted away.

Every picture tells a story.

You can see the transition, it isn’t subtle. I went from shy, combative, grumpy, stick in the mud to a little less grumpy, stiff or quiet. I went from being a behind the scenes guy who dabbled in television stories to the guy who produces the whole thing, writing documentaries, travelling to Germany and Afghanistan. If you’d told people who knew me back then, I don’t know that they’d have thought twice about how things went.

But the pictures diminished. Not for me, but for her. She always fought what she called a weight problem. I never looked at it that way. I know that, because of some liver issues and medicines, in the last few years the problem became reality, but it wasn’t something permanent and we were working on fixing it.

The terrible, horrible thing I have to face now is the fact that I have no record of those years. She wouldn’t allow photos or video of her. We went from having a photographic history of our life to rare moments where we captured her without her knowledge and kept the photos to ourselves. Sure, I gave her things, wrote her a song, but what does that compare with what I got . . . she gave me my life back, the person I saw in the mirror but couldn’t bear to let everyone else see. She was brilliant as the sun, smart as a whip, and she gave it to me without reservation.

How do you remember someone you lost?  I see that amazing woman, the outgoing person who wouldn’t let me hide behind the wall any more.  Do the kids see her?  Do they remember that woman?  Will their image change to the ones that are left behind instead of the Mom they knew?

I hope as long as I continue to push the amazing things she did for all of us they’ll remember the person I saw, the one who did far more for me than I can imagine I EVER did for her.  It’s evident, my friends, there’s no disputing it.  Even if you don’t believe that, no matter, the evidence is there. Just look.

Every picture tells a story, don’t it?

Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart

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Tonight I Feel Broken in Two

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Noah in a fond, happy moment. Far different from our evening's tribulations.

Years ago, when our oldest, Abbi, was just a kid, I had to do one of the most intense and terrible punishments I have ever devised.

Abbi, you see, was terrible at picking up after herself and keeping her room or the living room clean. This was particularly difficult for Andrea and I considering the fact that this was just a tiny, 2-bedroom house in Omaha. The worst thing in the whole world: Barbie hairbrushes. Those things are like a tiny plastic bed of nails placed strategically so that when you walked through the hallway or the living room in the dark of night so you can step on them and embed the hot pink day-glo plastic into the arch of your foot. I cannot tell you the number of muffled screams escaping my throat during the years we lived in our little 2-bedroom near the Country Club area of town.

The particular punishment centered around those very dolls. We were moving from Omaha, NE to Dallas, Texas where I had already begun work as a producer and photographer for the CBS network owned television station there. We were packing up the bright yellow Ryder truck parked on 50th street, awaiting the house full of items. Abbi had left all the said Barbies lying on the floor. She had been told on more than one occasion that she had to pick them up . . . long before we were to move. Now we were being held up by the fact that she wouldn’t pick up the dolls.

I had already threatened throwing them out, putting them away, grounding her, and last resort that we’d give the dolls away. She didn’t believe that was an option. She was wrong.

The day we were moving, I’d had it. She’d been told more than once that she had to pick them up and put them in a bag so that they could be packed in the truck for the move to Tejas. She didn’t do it, fueling my anger through the day. By the time we had to start mopping up the move I looked at Abbi and told her to tell me which Barbie was her favorite. She grabbed one and I told her to get in my truck. We drove from our house a couple miles down the road to the Salvation Army Hospital, a place that housed kids who for whatever reason did not have insurance and were getting help for long-term diseases. Abbi cried, horribly, the entire way to the place. I nearly caved in twice. It wasn’t even a long drive to the hospital but it was the longest trip I’d ever taken.

I made Abbi walk up to the receptionist in the hospital lobby, handing the doll to her.

“My Daddy says I am not able to take care of my toys so I’m giving this to you so you can give it to a little girl who doesn’t have a doll. Hopefully she can take better care of it than I can.”

She stopped crying on the way home. As difficult a punishment as this was to dish out, it was brilliant in its simplicity. She’d been through a Jesuit preschool and a Catholic kindergarten. They had learned about charity and giving. How do you get angry with your dad’s punishment if you know damn well that a little kid who has never had a doll will love getting this – your favorite. Abbi hated the punishment, but she never forgot it. From that point on, every time I said I was going to punish any of the other kids Abbi immediately told them to listen to me because I would make good on my promise. It was the gift that kept on giving.

Tonight, though, I hate myself for the punishment I had to dish out.

Noah, one of the twins, has been having problems at the school’s Extended Day Program, EDP. He, for God knows what reason, has an issue with another set of twins – kindergarten students. They both followed him around the room quite often, my theory because they both wanted to be with an older kid and because Noah was somebody who reacted when bothered. Noah is reactionary, but he’s never good at holding back his temper. He shouldn’t have picked on little kids.

Worse yet, he made the claim that he wouldn’t get in trouble. His mom died. People felt sorry for him. He was playing everyone, and it really bothered me. Worse yet, I’d had a talk with him the night before about having to be better at the EDP room. It isn’t semantics. He HAS to be good there, I don’t have another choice. I even told him that if we lost EDP, with no other options, it would have a ripple effect (not those particular words, give me some credit for being able to talk at an 8-year-old’s level) on all of us. What happens if I have to ask to leave at 2:30pm each day? Will I be able to keep my job? All these things were truly racing through my head.

Then he acts even worse. He gets in a fight with one of these kids today, pinning him to the ground after yelling at him.

I did what a lot of parents would do. Noah wrote a letter to each of the twins that he’d mistreated. Then I told him he had to write a letter to both the EDP teachers and the kindergartners’ dad. It was in the middle of the last letter – to the teachers – that I got the burst of inspiration. It was horrible, and I had no idea that it would break me in two.

He finished the last letter, finishing it up, drawing a little picture of a jack-0-lantern and a ghost on the bottom, I guess because he thought it would be nice for the teachers, and wrote their names on the envelope. He was about to get up and leave and I stopped him.

One more.

Write a letter to your Mommy.

The look on his face wasn’t angry or sad. It was scared. His eyes went red and the tears started to fall down his little cheeks. You have no idea just how hard it was for me, watching him write to his mother and apologize for using her death as a way to get out of trouble. The bottom of the letter, the blue line of the notebook paper smearing under the salty drops, one by one, hitting the bottom of the page. I looked away not wanting him to see me as torn up as he was.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. I said I would be good at school because you had died, but I lied.”

I hadn’t asked him to write that. He did it on his own. All I said was to write what he would have told Andrea if she was sitting there. I know what was going through his mind. The one thing Andrea wouldn’t abide, not ever, was lying. Not from the kids. Not from me. You could get away with bloody murder, but lie to her and you would have a hard time getting back into her graces. Her anger over lies is equaled only by my ability to hold a grudge.

Then he wrote more, and I lost it.

“I miss you Mommy.”

The bottom of the page had been hit by so many tears it was sticking to the table by now.

You have to understand, I know what he went through, I was going through it there with him. When he couldn’t think, I told him just to think about Mommy, sitting there, right in her normal spot at the table and looking at us.

“What would she say to you, Noah?”

He shook his head not knowing.

“Would she say I love you, little moo? You have to do better, you know that right?”

He nodded his agreement.

Then he added that he loved her so much.

I put my hand on his shoulder, standing behind him, telling him he didn’t have to write any more if he didn’t want to. He didn’t. I had him put the letter in an envelope and put “Mommy”, which he misspelled (in the letter too) Momy.

Then I did something that just ripped what little semblance of control away from my emotions and was the last piece that pushed him over the edge, too. I told him that we’d get up early tomorrow, go to the cemetery, and give Mommy his letter.

After he’d calmed down, I told him to go upstairs and change into pajamas and I’d come up and read. Then I went to a part of the house where the kids wouldn’t see me and just broke down.

I had to do it. I know that. I knew life wouldn’t be perfect, not any better than when Andrea was here, it couldn’t be. I guess I had hoped it just wouldn’t be this hard. It hasn’t. Not for a long time. I don’t know why this affected me so deeply, maybe because we both could just see her there but couldn’t talk to her, touch her, even just say we’re sorry . . . for everything that has been pulling at us since she left. It’s horrible to have a one-way conversation and only guess from old memories that are slowly slipping away what her reaction will be.

Don’t take this the wrong way. Punishing the kids when they are clearly wrong isn’t the issue here. The issue is that they have to face this. I write every day because after the chaos of the day diminishes – after the kids go to bed – I have nobody to face the stresses of the day with. Hell, I’m not sure I’ll ever want to have that again, but regardless I feel like I need to tell somebody above the age of 16 what is going on. More important, though, I realize the kids have to face this without their Mom. You’re supposed to make life for your kids better. Right now, I can only see myself propping them up so they don’t fall, no more, no less. It may get better, but it’s so unfair, so painful to watch them face that “Momy” is gone and they have to face knowing they don’t have her to enjoy their little moments of life with. I wrote a lyric for a new song not long ago – it just wasn’t supposed to be this way. It’s even more evident in this episode.

I had such high hopes for the day. Never realized that instead I’d see the stars fall from the sky. Tonight I feel broken in two.

When Do We Stop Touching the Street?

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Abbi at 6, realizing she may be small but is a giant inside!

I took this photo probably ten years ago, maybe more.
I had just bought a medium format camera, a Yashica, from a colleague for a decent price and I was experimenting with the camera.

As I was staring down the top of the little box, watching the reflex prism and getting used to the strange counter intuitive movement I heard “Daddy! Look at me! I can touch the street!”

As I turned around Abbi was standing next to the concrete steps that led up to our little home on 50th street in Omaha. Her arms were up, and she was giddy that she could look at her shadow projected in perfect position so it looked like she was touching the street. With the hand rail, steps and her shadow, the lines were just perfect to snap a photo.

The thing is, she was a tiny little girl, the kind of kid Andrea and I both needed for our first.  When Andrea got pregnant with Abbi, she wasn’t happy.  She wasn’t indifferent.  She wasn’t even pensive, much like I was for both Hannah and the boys.

She freaked out!  I mean, catatonic, hair on fire, a hare’s breath from falling off the ledge freaking out.  You know what, I got it, even then.  We were only 22/23 at the time.  We were young, stupid, and married only a year.  We had amazing plans, travel we wanted to do, and a whole life that wasn’t planned out, but we weren’t ready to be parents.  Still, she was freaking out, and even though I wanted to freak out too, one of us had to be calm.

But something happened after Abbi was born.  She was this adorable little thing, hungry, helpless, and the strangely perfect combination of the two of us.  Sure, she had problems.  As a baby her GI tract was so messed up she had vomiting episodes that make the exorcist look like and episode of Sesame Street.  She needed handmade formula because she was allergic to EVERYTHING!

But she was also the best kid, which was what we needed.  Sure, we had our battle of wills.  We had our crazy arguments.  But she always was this smiling, bright little star that made both of us beam.  While Andrea swore that Abbi was distant from her because she was so anxiety ridden through the whole pregnancy, she would be heartbroken to see how much her daughter misses her.  Abbi doesn’t have breakdowns, doesn’t burst into tears.  But I can see the missing pieces when I talk to her.  When she has a problem with her math homework, when she’s having boy problems, when she can’t get a date for Homecoming.  Still, there are times when she does something silly, not the adult Abbi she sees herself becoming, but the goofy, funny little kid – the same silly things that her Mom would do that made all of us love her so much more than we already did.

And I’ve noticed something, being the only adult in a house full of children.  They have this amazing ability to look at the world with amazement.  They can see their shadow and say “hey, I can touch the street”.  When I walk with the boys they see a rock in front of them and they kick it.  They don’t run, in fact they keep the pace, moving slowly right or left to meet up with the path of the rock . . . and kick it again.  I get that it’s a rock, but it’s still a great indication of how they keep imagining the way things should go.

It’s made me think of something.  The best times in our lives, the ones that we remember, laughing, falling over giggling, and loving every minute of it are the ones where we suspend our reality to look at the world through their eyes.  It’s why we love going to theme parks.  Take the analogy further – it’s why we ended up on the freaking moon!

Now Abbi is 16.  I see some of that imagination wane.  The small twinkling of that brightness comes back sometimes, and I see it: when she’s singing in the choir; when she’s dancing with the iPod in her room (and thinks I didn’t see her); when she gets an invitation to a party some popular kid is throwing and other people didn’t.  I realize that those horrible ’80s movies we all watched as teens aren’t popular because they were amazing films.  I mean, look at Ferris Bueller. Like he could jump on a parade float, get the crowd singing and get away without one bit of police brutality?  But what made them golden – what makes us keep loving them – is that suspension of disbelief.  We never thought Molly Ringwald would end up with Andrew McCarthy, but then, Ducky never lives happily ever after either.  But we have just enough of that little kid left in us to still think those are the greatest moments ever.

I’ve realized it’s OK to think that, too.  Why kill the one thing that keeps us from falling off the cliff ourselves?

I wish I knew when we stopped trying to touch the street.  I’d stop it, and challenge us all to reach for the moon instead!

You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

I'm not carrying the weight of the world, but it's enough...

I carry a lot of weight on my shoulders every day.

That’s no mere metaphor, it is literal as well as figurative.

When I met my lovely wife I weighed a mere 180 pounds.  I fluctuated, sure, going up and down, 190, 180, 197, 195 . . . no massive surges in either direction that would cause me to even track my weight every day, though.  That is, until about a year ago . . . maybe 18 months.

I gained a substantial amount of weight.  In fact, by the time of the funeral, pictures of which now horrify me for vain reasons as well as emotional ones, I had ballooned to a whopping 250 or 270.  Not sure, by that point I was too embarrassed to look.  It’s painful to carry that much.  Walking was slow, I had a hard time catching my breath, and I could tell my metabolism had changed to the point that I can’t eat whatever I want and assume my body will just burn off whatever I need.

That’s changed.  Not because I’ve taken control, focused my mind and body and begun a stringent training routine that involves drinking some sort of green, grass-flavored liquid and running before the sun rises in the East.  It’s changed because I just don’t have the time to sit on my ass and munch on crap while watching television.  I also have a job that gets me out of the building and isn’t stuck dealing with turning a million stories with too few resources and too much pressure.  Yeah, the pressure’s there, but last week I was riding in a boat while interviewing a guy on a story out in the Bay.  What other job lets you do that?

I’ve lost almost 20 pounds since then.  The other weight isn’t coming off, not anytime soon.

I’ve done my best to make decisions that I thought would create the least amount of chaos; inflict the least amount of damage.  Hasn’t always worked out that way, and the road is paved with my good intentions, as they say, but it’s the best I could do.

When Andrea first went into the ICU, we didn’t have the kids come in.  Andrea was very weak and she just needed to get stronger to handle the pull and need of the kids, both emotionally and physically.  I’m not sure if we ever had a discussion that said “keep them home for now,” but I did anyway.

When she went into respiratory arrest everything changed.  I’ve described the panic, I won’t relive that with you.  But in that first day, nervous, hurried and hyper to the point of talking for every single second, I made a lot of decisions I regret, but don’t know that I’d change.  Whether it is true or not, I believe that those in a coma, or in Andrea’s case, sedation, can hear us.  I hear the kids in the twilight of my dreams when they come into my room just before they wake me up.  Why couldn’t Andrea?  So as a result I didn’t stop talking.  Not from the minute I arrived through my way out the door each night.

It’s also why I kept everyone away.  With the kids it was for two reasons: first, I didn’t want them to see her that way.  If you’ve ever seen someone intubated, on a respirator and fighting for every breath, you know it’s horrible.  The medical dramas make it look so romantic, a frenzied operation that pits the nurse or doctor above the patient’s head, the scramble of activity and the rush to get the tube inside and get the person breathing just in time . . . believe me, that might be the first few seconds.  The rest aren’t.

The tube is all the way down the throat.  So when the nurse comes in, sedated as Andrea is, they touch, move or adjust that tube, Andrea feels it.  She jumps.  She cringes.  She grimaces.  Nothing about it is comfortable for her or for me.  I saw it when my Dad was recovering from heart surgery, and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen my mother cry.  I watched it, every time they came into the room with Andrea, and I faced it because I felt like she needed me there.

That awareness is also why I kept most everyone out.  Andrea’s sister Amy came, and that was fine.  She was always a comfort to Andrea, who loved her deeply.  Andrea also had a connection with her sister, loved her children almost as deeply as her own, and was comfortable around her.  She told Amy things she didn’t tell anyone else.  Her visit was welcome.

But I kept Andrea’s parents away as long as I could.  Andrea always tensed up, with every visit when they were there.  Andrea’s mom, you see, had come down with a degenerative brain disorder, something akin to Parkinson’s but faster acting and harder hitting.  Andrea would visit their house and I would take her call on the way home, in tears, often distressed either by the further deterioration of her mother or because of some argument with her parents.  Neither made things easy on her.  It was this stress, this tensing that I thought she didn’t need that I tried to keep away.  They did visit once, and Andrea’s body was more rigid, the seemingly reflexive movements growing faster.  Andrea didn’t need to be subjected to this every day, and neither did her parents.  I was there, I didn’t like what I saw, but you don’t abandon someone you love because you’re uncomfortable.

You have to understand, I sincerely thought, even by then, she would get better.  It was just pneumonia.  I know it’s horrible and that people can still die from it, but I thought we’d come through it and be stronger for it.  I had no idea that it would just be . . . over.

Now, I wonder where the kids’ heads are.  Are they mad at me because they didn’t see their Mom those days?  Do they wonder if she was thinking about them?  None of them act out to me or seem like they are upset about it.  But the signs creep out that they wonder.  I was determined, though, that their memory of their mother be the best memories, the ones that revolved around her dancing in the middle of the living room with them to some goofy little song.  The woman who sat at the table with her huge mug of coffee and infectious laugh.  I didn’t want them to see or remember her with the plastic tubing snaking around her like tentacles; the black marker on her leg to indicate which one had an infection; the tube full of greyish crap that they pulled out of her lungs through it all.

After the funeral, the hospital let me know there was a bunch of stuff of Andrea’s that I had left behind.  It took a lot for me to go to the hospital then, but I did it.  I wasn’t going to leave any of her behind.  I was pretty proud, too, I’d done fairly well and held it together.  That is until they handed me the items.  They’d taken a bunch of her stuff, her clothes, shoes, even the copy of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and tossed it into a clear plastic garbage bag.  That wouldn’t have been so bad, except in the bottom were the get well cards the kids had made for Andrea – cards that she’d been able to read, just hours before she took her bad turn.

They all seemed, at least at that moment, to plead for her to come home.  They told how much they missed her, nearly begged her to come home, that they needed her.  It was like a visible representation of their hearts ripping in two.  The weight got a little heavier, as did my heart.

Now, when I’m home and Sam’s playing upstairs or reading, he’ll shout down every 15 or 20 minutes:

“Hey dad?”

“Yeah Sam?”

“I love you!”

Hannah will stop me in the middle of walking from the flour to the sugar while making cookies to hug me, in the most inopportune moments.

Noah wants to be around and have some sort of activity every second of every day.

Abbi, well she has a lot of responsibility she shoulders now, whether I pull it off of her or not.  All of this is a result of my decisions.

Were they the right ones?  I don’t know.  I will never know, I don’t think.  It’s a very solitary thing, to carry this weight.  My parents helped carry some of it, holding me up after they arrived.  Still, the decisions I made, alone, when nobody else was around, I have to live with whether they’re right or not.  It’s one of those horrible points in life, where every decision will have bad consequences, you just have to measure which decision has the fewest.

I am fortunate to have 4 amazing children, who tell me things, who let me know if they’re down or miss their mom, or just need help.  I can live with Sam freaking out in a store if we’re not all together or Noah constantly under foot.  Why?  Because we’re far stronger together than individually.

I make no decision about our family without their input now.  I don’t care how minute.  They’re involved, and they’re part of it all, which is as it should be.  It’s not because I want them to shoulder the burden, it’s because they should never have to feel left out again.  They should not be alone in the dark.

But mostly, I just want to make sure they don’t have to carry that weight.  Pick your musical metaphor, use whatever philosophical platitude suits you best.

No matter, I’m going to carry that weight . . . a long time.

Andrea’s Airplane Music . . .

I had mentioned an old mix tape before thought it might be fun to list the tracks for you. Some are as subtle as a 2×4 and others…well I don’t know what my mind was thinking 20 years ago.

Rush : Dreamline
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Couldn’t Stand the Weather
ERic Clapton: After Midnight
Steve Winwood: One and Only Man
ERic Clapton: Forever Man
Doobie Brothers: Dangerous
ZZ Top: La Grange
Eagles: Victim of Love
Joe Walsh: All of a Sudden
Led Zeppelin: Ten Years Gone
Pink Floyd: On the Turning Away

Side 2
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers: Made Me Wanna Go
Allman Brothers: One Way Out
The Who: Magic Bus
Robert Cray and the Memphis Horns: Consequences
STevie Ray Vaughan: Tightrope
Vaughan Brothers: Telephone Song
Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same
ZZ Top: waiting for the bus/Jesus just left Chicago
Eric Clapton: just like a prisoner/behind the sun

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We’re only immortal for a limited time . . .

When we are young, wandering the face of the earth, wondering what our dreams might be worth, learning that we’re only immortal for a limited time.”

Yes, I know, it takes some guts to start a post with a quote from the band Rush.  There’s a reason for it, beyond the oddly philosophical bent to the lyric.

My oldest daughter had a brief moment of clarity, a space between the angst and hormonal intensity of a typical sixteen-year-old’s reality.  We were sitting at our kitchen table together, the last two holdouts of our family dinner, an exercise that seems to be growing exponentially shorter by the day.

The whole point to dinner at the table is so that I can talk to them all and know what’s been going on.  I know what little girl takes delight in emotionally torturing Noah, seemingly for little reason.  I know what part of the field trip they just took impressed Sam the most.  I know the long-term plan Hannah has for getting her friends musically educated so they can have a band and play Green Day and Pink Floyd songs together.  I also know what boys are cute and what party Abbi is invited to that boosts her morale and confidence.

I also rotate music choices.  Here’s where we diverge from the path we traveled as a full family.  Andrea hated my stereo system.  She thought it was clunky, old, big, noisy and outdated.  I love it.  Where Andrea loved the convenience of the newer, bookshelf stereo or just throwing a CD in the DVD player, the lack of audio quality bugged the hell out of me.  So one of the first things I did was to set up the stereo, in a shelving set in the corner, speakers on the floor, part of the decor, in a very retro-looking setup I’ve seen on a dozen romantic comedies or so, where the male love interest somehow has an old, expensive turntable and a full LP collection that nobody I ever knew owned.  Even when LP’s were all you had.

Yes, I’m strangely retro now.  Funny thing is, it wasn’t by choice.  It’s cool now to be collecting vinyl and listening to your stereo.  I think we’ve confirmed that I’m not cool.  I just never stopped listening to my vinyl.  Guess I shouldn’t reveal that and just act like I’m cool. (Yeah, I know, if you have to act cool, you aren’t)

There’s a point here, bear with me.  We rotate the music choices.  Each night, a different person in the family gets to pick a record.  (CD’s too, if they want, but I prefer the vinyl.)  This night, we had some new record playing, that expensive audiophile 180g vinyl that Odd Job from Goldfinger could use to cut off your head.  It was a bit melancholy, and Abbi mentioned something I’ve been thinking . . . even posted here . . . for some time.

“It’s been a lot harder this last few weeks, Dad.  I don’t know why that is.  It’s just been harder.”  She hadn’t expected that.  She wasn’t sure why but I was.  I’ve said it before, Fall is our time.  Andrea and I just loved everything that came with it.  Her birthday is also the 30th of October.  How do you face an occasion you never got right without the person you disappointed for so many years?

As we reviewed how we’d trudge through the rest of the month Abbi went to her room, likely to commiserate with friends.  I noticed that the old cassette player had a tape in it, one I’d put there when we moved and forgotten.  It was an old “mix tape”.  For those unfamiliar, a “mix tape” was a way to show you cared for someone without getting hurt too badly if they said the feelings weren’t mutual.  You took the time and effort to find songs and artists that you thought the person would like, timing out two sides to a cassette, positioning the songs so that there’s no dead air at the end of a side, perfectly placed so the last notes fade, the leader tape streams over the heads of the deck, and the clunk of the mechanism stopping signals the listener to rotate the tape and see what awaits them on the other side.

This tape was one I had made for Andrea when we first started dating.  I know it was for a trip she was making, I think to visit our mutual friend Annie, on the East Coast.  It was all music we’d listened to at work.  but there were hints of things we’d played while wiling away the evenings in those intense, romantic first weeks.  It also had the song quoted above, seemingly out of place other than it was from that era.

But it fits for two reasons.  First, I had taken Andrea on our first official “date” (I’ll go over why it’s in quotation marks on another post) to see Rush.  She could have cared less, I know now.  It was cold, with black ice all over the pavement.  We walked together toward the Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Andrea in a bright red, full-length red coat that had a big scooping hood that draped off the back, framing her shoulders as it hung below them.  She slipped slightly, grabbing my elbow as my arm went around her waist.  It could  have been filmed, that moment, where she leaned there, in my arms, the briefest of eternal pauses as she steadied herself in my arms.  And then she smiled, laughing in her eyes, telling me “it wouldn’t surprise me if you did this on purpose, just so you could see the California girl fall on her ass!”  It’s one of those moments you are sure was in a John Hughes film, the California girl meets the Midwestern boy.  It’s either that or a Bob Seger song, not sure which.

I was walking 2 feet above the ground the rest of the night.  I didn’t know until later she could have cared less about the band, she went because I asked her.  Some Romeo, right?  Ask a girl out and the venue is one where you can’t talk because it’s so loud.  It’s either stupid or it’s genius.

This song, those two albums: Presto and Roll the Bones, were more commercial and probably most accessible to her.  We ran into friends at the auditorium, pulling the romance out of the moment quite a bit.  But I never forgot the night.  I guess she didn’t either, because in years since, her family and friends all recount that night as one she told them about.

Now, I see the whole picture.  Andrea was a flaming burst of energy in those days.  Where I was this sort of gangly, geeky, quiet and calm kid, she was was antimatter released!  She partied hard, drank heavily, but that wasn’t a bad thing.  She made me happier, boosted my confidence and just enveloped me with emotion.  I don’t think I ever saw her in those days without a brilliant smile, her eyes just sparkling.  It was such a counter opposite to how things deteriorated in the last few years.  Not between us, but for her.  The flame wasn’t as bright.  I had seen it coming back, but now it’s extinguished.

The lyric is a strong metaphor.  We spent nearly every possible waking hour together.  As Neal’s lyric says, we were “wandering the face of the earth, wondering what our dreams might be worth…”  Andrea blew through life like she was immortal.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, the hell with the consequences, we will do this and come through on the other side.

I won’t say Andrea was like Jimi or Janice.  She wasn’t doomed to die, because we had plans.  We were going to take a little of that lightning back out of the bottle again.  We had never thought this could happen.  It wasn’t on the horizon.  We were getting older, ignoring the lessons of our misspent years, when we thought we were going to live forever.

It’s the one lesson I hope my kids don’t ever learn.

I don’t want them to know that we’re only immortal for a limited time.